In the summer of 1871 Bill Tweed finds himself in a quandary. New York’s battling clans of the Irish are at it again, and the Tammany boss is caught in the middle. Protestant Orangemen from Northern Ireland want to parade: to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over Catholic Irish nationalists in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne and to insult the descendants of those Catholic nationalists here in New York. Last year’s Orange parade produced a murderous confrontation between the Orangemen and the Catholic Irish in which eight people died and many were injured. Tweed has tried to avert a reprise by ordering Mayor A. Oakey Hall and police superintendent James Kelso to deny the Orangemen a parade permit for this year.

But the ban evokes angry protests. A meeting of merchants at the Produce Exchange approves a resolution decrying the “imperious and illegal order” and deprecating “this utter violation of the rights of the people.” The New York Herald declares the ban a fateful step down a slippery road to the kind of repression currently manifested by the radical Commune in Paris, where blood has flowed in the streets and much more seems likely to flow. The Times taunts Tweed, Hall, and Kelso for bowing to the Irish: “City Authorities Overawed by the Roman Catholics.” The same paper prints a letter to the editor demanding, “It is Pope or President for this country,” and “Have Americans any rights now?” The letter’s author signs himself “Old Vet of 1812” and gives his place of residence as “Ireland (late New York).”

The outcry compels Tweed to reconsider. He confers with Governor John Hoffman, who has come down from Albany, and they direct Mayor Hall and Superintendent Kelso to rescind the ban. The government will not prevent the Orangemen from marching. On the contrary, Hoffman says, the government will enforce the Protestants’ right to assemble and march: “They will be protected to the fullest extent possible by the military and police authorities.”

Now the Catholic Irish protest, in their own, direct fashion. In the early morning of Wednesday, July 12—Orange Day—police discover an effigy hanging from a telegraph pole in front of the liquor store of Owen Finney at 14 Spring Street, not far from Hibernian Hall, the headquarters of New York’s militant Irish. The figure is made to look like a man dressed in orange. The police cut the figure down and inquire among the neighbors as to who might have hoisted it. No one offers any information, with most seeming sullen and others fearful.

Inside Hibernian Hall a large crowd of Catholics gathers to denounce Tweed and the authorities for reversing the no-parade policy. An undercover journalist has infiltrated the meeting and records the angry oaths. “This is the governor we elected,” one protester sneers of Hoffman. The crowd plots a countermarch of its own. Someone suggests demanding a police escort, lest the marchers be attacked. Another person, more attuned to the spirit in the hall, retorts, “We got arms enough and can do our own fighting.” This elicits loud applause, and a question: “Where are the arms?” The man chairing the meeting, a Mr. Doyle, answers: “There will be enough arms here in half an hour to arm all that are present.” Another man shouts: “How about the volunteers?” Chairman Doyle replies: “We shall have thousands join us when we march out. Arrangements have been made that they shall be supplied if they want them.”

At this point some notice that the covert journalist isn’t responding with the zeal of the rest. “Reporter in the room,” the chairman bellows. “What are you doing here? We don’t want you.” The next day’s paper will summarize the journalist’s response: “The reporter, knowing the impulsive nature of the Hibernians, wisely concluded to leave the hall and in this way escaped the personal violence which he heard threatened as he went down the stairs.”

The reporter encounters soldiers and police deploying rapidly around the city: “There was hurrying, in hot haste, of armed men through the streets converging to the several points of rendezvous of the National Guard and of large companies of police officers hurrying to their headquarters at the Central office. It was as if a deadly enemy of the Commonwealth was expected at the gates, and an alarmed people were making hasty preparations for defense. But when it was considered that the enemy was within the community, and that it was an arrogant faction determined by force to deny to others the liberty which it claimed for itself, and that all these preparations were necessary to enforce the laws against those who swore to obey them, every reflecting citizen saw that the crisis was more portentous than if a foreign fleet were bombarding the City, or a foreign host at its gates.”

The Catholic Irish naturally interpret the situation differently. The Orangemen are provocateurs, they claim, shielded by the Protestant-intimidated establishment. The provocateurs must be punished. Irish workers drop their tools and walk off their jobs all across the city—quarrymen from a construction site at Tenth Avenue and Forty-sixth Street, longshoremen from the docks at the foot of Houston Street, rail workers from the Third Avenue line, thousands of laborers from myriad other sites. Many come willingly; some, threatened with instant dismissal by Protestant employers, have to be taunted or intimidated into joining the swelling crowd of Irish protesters.

They meet their women and children on both sides of the Orange parade route, along Eighth Avenue above Twenty-first, in time for the early-afternoon start. They fill the sidewalks several rows deep and jam the intersections at the cross streets. They taunt and curse the police and militia who precede the marching Orangemen; many hurl rocks and bottles along with their imprecations. The patrolmen and soldiers suffer the bombardment for a time, but then the police charge the mob, laying about with billy clubs, and the soldiers fire blank rounds of warning. Whether the blanks provoke live fire from the mob or are simply followed by real rounds from the soldiers’ muskets will furnish grist for years of debate; today the question is lost amid the smoke and shrieks that rise above the gun reports and the collision of thousands of angry bodies.

No one counts the dead today; survivors are too busy trying to escape the line of fire and bludgeon. Tomorrow coroners and local hospitals will tally some sixty bodies and twice that many wounded. Shopkeepers will wash the blood and gore from around their entryways. Patrick Ford’s Irish World will condemn the “Slaughter on Eighth Avenue” and the Irish neighborhoods will seethe with resentment at the Orangemen and those who took their side. A grand jury headed by foreman Theodore Roosevelt, whose twelve-year-old son, also called Theodore Roosevelt, has observed the violence from the safe distance of the family’s Union Square home, will congratulate Governor Hoffman for taking action that proved “a necessity to preserve the honor of our city.” Police commissioner Henry Smith, a friend of Roosevelt’s, will wonder whether the police and militia should have responded with even greater force. “Had one thousand of the rioters been killed,” Smith will say, “it would have had the effect of completely cowing the remainder.”

The one thing the two sides agree on is that Bill Tweed is a miserable excuse for a civic leader. In the papers, in meeting halls, on street corners, they pound him unmercifully. The Irish Catholics condemn him as a coward for bending to the Protestants; the Protestants damn him for incompetency in failing to prevent the Irish violence.

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